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LBUSD Among World's Top 20 Systems

The Long Beach Unified School District is one of the world’s top 20 school systems —  and one of the top three in the U.S. — in terms of sustained and significant improvements, according to a report this week described as the most comprehensive analysis of global school system reform ever assembled.

The report by McKinsey & Company, a trusted advisor and counselor to many of the most influential businesses and institutions in the world, was released during an interactive webinar in which international participants listened to expert panelists and engaged in a question and answer session.  McKinsey serves more than 70 percent of Fortune magazine’s most admired companies.

“We’re delighted and honored to be part of this landmark study,” LBUSD Superintendent Christopher J. Steinhauser said.  “This report is the clearest sign yet that Long Beach schools are making extraordinary progress and that our efforts deserve to be supported and replicated.”

Long Beach and Boston were the only two school districts worldwide to appear in the report.  The other school systems were categorized as nations, provinces or networks, including one other non-district system in the U.S. (Aspire, a charter system).  Long Beach also was one of 13 “sustained improvers.”

“Over the past 20 years Long Beach Unified School District has become a model for urban public school system transformation in the United States,” says the 140-page report titled “How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.”

Panelists during the webinar included moderator Sir Michael Barber (of the McKinsey firm), along with education officials from Canada, Hong Kong and South Africa.  As the panelists fielded questions from Spain, India, Colombia, Germany and other countries, an encouraging pattern emerged for Long Beach educators.  Many of the successful methods used in Long Beach also are used by the world’s leading school systems.

In both Canada and Hong Kong, educators emphasize the sophisticated use of student performance data, in a non-punitive fashion, to help teachers improve instruction.  Long Beach has long taken such an approach, using data to fuel greater collaboration among teachers, principals and the central office.

As with Long Beach, these other successful school systems have gone far beyond standardized tests to create customized assessments that more fully measure student achievement.

The best school systems also partner with higher education on teacher preparation, much like Long Beach has done with its well established and nationally recognized Seamless Education Partnership with Cal State Long Beach, local businesses and others.

Also common to the most improved school systems was a commitment to supporting every student.

“It’s about raising the bar and closing the achievement gap for all students,” said panelist Michael Fullan, special adviser on education to the Premier in Ontario, Canada.  Accomplishing this aim requires personalizing, or differentiating instruction to meet the individual student’s needs, Fullan said.  Such an approach has been key to Long Beach’s success.  The same goes for Hong Kong:

“We’ve gradually moved from being a selective school system to a school system for all students to succeed,” said panelist K.K. Chan, deputy secretary of the Hong Kong Education Bureau.  “So we have diversified our curricula to cater to the interests and aptitudes of students.”

During the live webinar, Long Beach also was praised by study author Mona Mourshed for “tremendous gains in math.”

The math gains in Long Beach began when a highly effective math teacher, inspired by an aunt who taught in Singapore, began sharing his approach with other teachers.  With full support from Long Beach’s central office, that teacher’s successful methods have now been replicated in elementary schools districtwide.  The result is that math scores have improved between 20 percent and 75 percent in second through fifth grades from 2004 to 2009, according to the study.

“When teachers register impressive student gains, LBUSD is proactive in noting and understanding their practices,” the study states.  “It identifies the best delivery methods from pilot data and then rolls out the program.”

The report praises Long Beach’s teacher and principal training, or professional development, including teacher coaching and mentoring.

“Great care is taken to ensure that the teacher remains empowered throughout the coaching process,” the report states.

The report also notes the importance of LBUSD’s stable leadership over the past two decades of marked improvement here.  During most of that time, LBUSD has been led by two superintendents – first Carl Cohn, and then Steinhauser.  While most urban school superintendents survive only 2.8 years on the job, Cohn served for 10 years, and Steinhauser has served for more than nine years.

“As a result, there has been remarkable consistency in the architecting of practices and mindsets,” the study states.  ‘’Though there have been changes in the system’s priorities and approach, these have been the result of evolution, not revolution.  Long Beach’s culture of consultation, the collective ownership of its schools, data-driven decision making, and the focus on what students learn rather than what teachers teach are all deeply embedded in the system.”

Expert panelists also described community and parental support as key to successful school systems.  Effective school systems are those that communicate well, creating public awareness and a critical mass of support that allows for a “united alignment.”

“The quality of communication is sometimes something that school systems underestimate,” agreed Barber, the panel moderator.

The full report, available at, is a follow-up to McKinsey's 2007 study, "How the world's best performing school systems come out on top."

ON THE WAY UP -- A study of the world's leading school reformers showed significant improvement in elementary math scores in the Long Beach Unified School District from 2004 to 2009.  This chart from the study shows increases in the percentages of students in grades 2 through 5 performing at the advanced and proficient levels on state math assessments.  Read the full report .